|Upstart Dolphins set to test mettle vs. Patriots|
The AFC East traditionally has been the division that has provided the least amount of surprise during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Era.
After all, the Patriots have scribbled their name atop the division 14 times in the last 15 years -- save for Brady's season-opening injury in 2008 that opened the door for the Miami Dolphins to capture the AFC East title.
Fast forward to the present as the Patriots (1-2) have endured back-to-back losses to fall two games behind the undefeated Dolphins (3-0) heading into their early-season showdown Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
"We've spent some time here on the Dolphins, and they're certainly off to an impressive start," Belichick said. "This is a really good football team. They're good in all three areas of the game.
"They lead the league in field position. A lot of that's created by special teams, obviously, and their turnover differential. So, done a really good job there, very good in the kicking game, explosive return game, good rushing team, they cover well.
"And offensively, this is a well-balanced team that's very explosive, has a lot of big plays, run the ball, have a lot of play-makers on the offensive side, including the quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) throwing and running. And defensively, they're aggressive, they play fast, turn the ball over, really good pursuit team, well-coached, good fundamental team. It's easy to see why they're 3-0. They're playing well, well-coached."
For the Dolphins to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1995, they will have to record their first win in New England since 2008. In fact, the Patriots have won 14 of their last 16 encounters with the Dolphins heading into Sunday's tilt.
Tannehill improved to 10-1 in his last 11 starts after throwing for 289 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 28-20 victory over the winless Oakland Raiders. While the Dolphins are 3-0 for the first time since 1998, the quarterback insisted there is more work ahead.
"We're on the right track," Tannehill said. "Are we there yet? No. But the patterns we're establishing are going to take us there."
While Jakeem Grant had two touchdown receptions last week and Albert Wilson threw and received a scoring strike, another wide receiver is fixated on Sunday's game versus New England.
"I'm excited to get back up there. I've had a lot of experience playing there," said Danny Amendola, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots before signing a two-year, $12 million deal with the Dolphins in March.
Amendola used to catch passes from Brady, who found himself pacing along the sideline as the Patriots' 28th-ranked defense was gouged by the Detroit Lions last Sunday. The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player finished 14 of 26 for 133 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the 26-10 setback.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had two touchdown receptions in his last meeting with Miami, routinely was double- and occasionally triple-teamed last week with the Patriots receiving little from their wide receivers in the passing game.
Wideout Josh Gordon, who was acquired from Cleveland last week, is uncertain to play versus Miami as he nurses a hamstring injury while getting up to speed on the Patriots' offense.
For New England to avoid its first 1-3 start since 2001, it will need to contain Cameron Wake. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has recorded 10.5 sacks in his career against New England.
"You've got to definitely get the ball out quick," Gronkowski said as a means of preventing Wake from disrupting the offense. "I would say that definitely disturbs the defenses pretty well, if you can get the ball out quick and make yards. So definitely that's what you want to do when you've got good pass-rushers on the other side of the ball."
New England also had great difficulty with Detroit's ground game. On Sunday, the Patriots will face the ageless Frank Gore and promising Kenyan Drake.
Gore recorded 289 scrimmage yards in three career meetings with the Patriots while Drake had a career-high 193 scrimmage yards in the last meeting.
New England rookie Sony Michel rushed for 50 yards in his first career start while fellow running back James White reeled in Brady's lone touchdown pass versus the Lions. White also had a receiving touchdown in his last encounter with the Dolphins.